1. Opinion

Gaetz, Weatherford column: Act makes education a path to jobs

Published Jun. 12, 2013

When the Career and Professional Education Act was signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott last month, we stated this bipartisan, bicameral initiative would not only reform but transform education in Florida.

This transformation from archaic seat time requirements to academically rigorous, economically relevant education is in full force in schools like Tampa Bay Technical High School, which we visited during the first leg of our Work Plan Florida Tour.

While more than half of last year's U.S. college graduates are unemployed or underemployed, the ironic truth is that there are thousands of jobs in Florida unfilled because employers can't find workers whose skills meet industry specifications.

That's why Florida's education system needs to be linked to the realities and opportunities of the economy, and that's exactly what the new law does.

You can see that link in Tampa Bay Tech's Diesel Technology Academy, where students learn diesel engine repair and heavy equipment maintenance and operations from industry trained instructors like James Mitchell. Diesel engines are donated to the program by companies that then compete to hire its graduates.

The same is true of the school's Cisco Academy, headed by Jim Truitt, where we learned that high-tech employers are hiring graduates who spend three years at the Cisco Academy and earn industry certifications over recent college graduates whom the company would have to spend years training.

We visited Tampa Bay Tech's Medical Academy, where Elizabeth Campbell is preparing students to become certified nursing assistants. Their clinical training includes supervised experience in hospitals, nursing homes and home health settings. After taking the Florida certification exam, students can enter the workforce, continue their education, or both. In fact, Hillsborough County Superintendent MaryEllen Elia told our group that with more than 50 openings for school nurses, she hopes to soon hire program graduates in district schools.

The school's Digital Arts Academy, led by Craig Naylor and E.J. Bayonet, produces graphic designers, who are not only hot commodities in the Florida job market but are posting up against Tampa Bay's best advertising agencies and winning a trophy case full of Addy Awards.

In these four CAPE Academies, and a growing number of similar institutes in Florida high schools, students are walking off the graduation stage with something much more valuable than a high school diploma alone. With industry certifications in their hands, they're being aggressively recruited into real jobs in the real economy.

Unlike some vocational programs of the past, CAPE academies offer curricula designed by industry, taught by industry-certified instructors. Industry tests students' skills and industry awards certifications that are nationally recognized currency in the job market. Most importantly, industry then competes to hire the graduates.

CAPE academies started in 2007, and this school year the 100,000th national industry certification was awarded to a Florida high school student.

The CAPE Act of 2013 goes even further, fully integrating economically relevant career education into Florida's K-12 system. Under the expanded law, students will get more choices. They will have not only a college-prep option but also a career-technical option to obtain a high school diploma and earn national industry certifications in health care, digital arts, automotive technology, IT, aerospace, biotechnology and 240 more fields.

Additionally, online education will open up for tens of thousands more K-12 students, with college-age and adult students able to earn University of Florida degrees entirely online.

Whether online or in traditional classrooms, whether career-technical or college-prep, the same academic rigor will be required and the same diplomas and degrees will be awarded. But, thanks to the new law, preparing for college and for jobs can satisfy academic requirements in more hands-on, career-related ways. When students earn industry-granted certifications, their schools earn weighted funding, their teachers earn more money as students achieve certifications, and students themselves can move further and faster or get tailored help if they're struggling. And, as we saw at Tampa Bay Tech, the students are engaged, excited and successful.

Our goal is high and clear: We won't be satisfied and neither should you until Florida's students can walk off the graduation stage with diplomas and degrees that are passports to real jobs in the real economy. CAPE was truly the "jobs bill" of the 2013 legislative session and the transformational education act of the decade.

Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, far left, is president of the Florida Senate. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, is speaker of the Florida House. They wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.